London, England, c. 1870
Two Missing Boys
The front door was painted black, with a shiny brass knocker that made a satisfying noise when Alfred used it.
Birdie spied a lace curtain twitching in the drawing room window.
“Someone’s at home,” she remarked. Alfred said nothing. He looked tired after their long walk—but then again he always looked tired. His gray mustache drooped. His shoulders were bent. His brown eyes sagged at the corners under his wide, floppy hat brim.
Suddenly the door was flung open. a housemaid in a white cap peered at them suspiciously, her gaze lingering on Alfred’s frayed canvas trousers and baggy green coat. “Yes?” she asked. “What’s yer business?”
Alfred removed his hat. “The name is Bunce,” he replied in his gravelly voice. “I came here on account of I were sent for.”
“Sent for?” The housemaid echoed.
“A Miss Ellen Meggs sent for me, by passing word through Tom Cobbings.”
“Oh!” The housemaid put a hand to her mouth. “Are you the Go-devil Man?”
“The bogler. Aye.”
“And I’m Birdie. I’m the ’prentice.” Because Birdie was very small and thin and pale, she was often ignored. So she liked to wear the most colorful clothes she could find. This summer her dress was a dull cotton drab, but she had added a little cape made of yellow satin, very soiled and creased, and there were red feathers on her battered straw hat.
Stepping out of her master’s shadow, she beamed up at the housemaid, eager to make friends. The housemaid, however, was too flustered to notice Birdie.
“Oh, why did you knock on this door?” she lamented.
“The hawker’s door is down by the coal hole! Come in
quick, afore the neighbors see you both.” Hustling Alfred and Birdie across the threshold, she slammed the door and said, “I’m Ellen Meggs. I’m the one as sent for you. My mistress knows nothing o’ this, nor won’t neither, if I have my way.”
“Ain’t she in?” Birdie asked shrewdly, glancing through the door to her left. It opened off a handsome entrance hall that Birdie thought finer than anything she had ever seen in her life—a lofty space with carpet on the stairs and paper on the walls and a bronze statue in one corner. The cedar joinery gleamed, and the air smelled of lemon. But there was a broom propped against the hat stand. And through the door that she’d spotted, Birdie could make out furniture swathed in dust sheets.
“Mrs. Plumeridge is at the seaside for her health,” Ellen replied. “Oh, but there’s other old cats across the way that never leave their parlor windows, and they’ll have seen you come in, sure as eggs!” She stamped her foot in frustration, her round, pink face growing even pinker under its frizz of sandy hair.
Alfred sighed. His shoulders were slumped beneath the weight of his sack, which he never let his apprentice carry, no matter how desperately she pleaded. “What’s yer particulars, Miss Meggs?” He inquired. “Tom Cobbings had none to give, save for yer name and where I’d find you. Is there a bogle in this house?”
Ellen opened her mouth, then hesitated. Her gaze had fallen on Birdie, whose blue eyes, freckled nose, and flyaway curls looked as delicate as fine china. Birdie knew exactly what the housemaid was thinking, because everyone always thought the same thing.
Only Alfred understood that Birdie was a heroine, brave and quick ...